By Barbara Perry Lawton
Photos Courtesy Brent and Becky’s Bulbs
[This article was first published in The Gateway Gardener October 2009 issue]
The trouble with tulips is that they often act more like annuals and do not reliably come back every year like daffodils, hyacinths and crocuses usually do. Yet they are simply gorgeous and worth planting in the fall. Further, if you take some time to study tulips, you will find there are certain ones that are reliably perennial.
So don’t just go and buy a bargain bag of tulip bulbs. Find a good tulip resource—a book, a catalog, an internet site—or check out your local independent garden center, and learn more about all the many different species and types of tulips. For a tulip book, you can’t beat Tulips for North America by Brent and Becky Heath. This husband and wife team operates an internationally known bulb farm in Gloucester, Virginia (around the corner from Williamsburg). You can tour the farm, by reservation, from mid-March to mid-April. They have a wonderful catalog that makes a good partner to their books on tulips and daffodils. Visit their website at www.brentandbeckysbulbs.com.
The Most Perennial Tulips
Generally speaking, the most perennial tulips are those of the Darwin Group and their hybrids and also the species or botanical tulips. The Triumph tulips are nearly as perennial though they will not cope well with environmental conditions that are less than ideal. Darwins and Triumph are single-flowered, midseason flowering tulips. Darwins, which will stay in bloom for as long as five weeks in long cool springs, are among the tallest and largest (18 to 24 inches) tulips. They have an added advantage of being disease-resistant. Triumphs are short to medium in height and have long lasting flowers in a rainbow of colors. See sidebar for recommendations specific to our St. Louis region.
If you are fortunate in your tulip choices and we have springs with cool nights and you have no problems with voles and other animals, your tulips may bloom year after year and increase by division and even self-seeding. In one garden, I had a group of yellow Darwin hybrid tulips that came back for about 12 years and, for all I know, may still be blooming every April.
Plant tulip bulbs from October to November. Plant where they will receive six to eight hours of sunlight during their blooming season. For effective design, plant in groups of no less than seven or nine—nothing looks worse than a single line of tulips soldiering their way along a flower bed. Space the bulbs about three inches apart. Choose a site with good drainage—that is crucial for all bulbs. Of course, a neutral to slightly alkaline soil with plenty of humus, a sandy loam ideally, would be best for bulbs. Most of us will have to add soil amendments to attain that.
Plant tulip bulbs deeply, three to four times the height of the bulb. Planting tulips deep helps protect them from rodents and buffers them from temperature extremes. Once you’ve planted tulip bulbs, be sure that the soil is moist. The bulbs must establish a good root system prior to hard freeze.
Planting tulips in among perennials or planning to add annuals to the bulb area are two good ways to hide the ripening foliage after bloom. Never cut off the green foliage. Let it ripen completely—the leaves are the factory producing the food for next spring’s flowers. Dried cow manure is a good organic fertilizer that you can apply each spring when tulip leaves appear. Or you can use a slow-release manufactured fertilizer such as 8-8-8 or one made especially for bulbs such as 9-6-6.
Perennial Tulip Varieties for St. Louis
(Recommendations from the Missouri Botanical Garden’s Kemper Center for Home Gardening)
‘Red Emperor’ (‘Madame Lefeber’)
‘Red Riding Hood’
Darwin hybrid tulips:
‘Beauty of Apeldoorn’
Single early tulip hybrids:
Barbara Perry Lawton is a writer, author, speaker and photographer. She has served as manager of publications for Missouri Botanical Garden and as weekly garden columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The author of a number of gardening and natural history books, and contributor to many periodicals, she has earned regional and national honors for her writing and photography. Barbara is also a Master Gardener and volunteers at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, MO.